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Janet Reno Announces Plans to Transfer Custody of Elian Gonzalez From His Miami Relatives to His Father

Aired April 7, 2000 - 3:22 p.m. ET



JANET RENO, ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE UNITED STATES: Today I met with Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, a man who expressed in very clear and in a very heartfelt manner his sincere desire to have his son returned to him as soon as possible. All you had to do was listen to him and look at him and see how much he obviously loves this little boy.

The meeting was with only a small group of people. Mr. Gonzalez was joined by his wife and their six-month-old baby boy and his lawyer Gregory Craig. I was joined by Commissioner -- INS Commissioner Doris Meissner, Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder, a member of his staff, and an official U.S. government translator. No Cuban officials were present.

During the hour-long meeting, Mr. Gonzalez and I had a very open and honest discussion. Throughout, he repeated what he has said time and again: He wants his son back.

Four months ago, Elian Gonzalez came to our shores after his mother perished at sea. While his immigration status was being resolved, he was placed in the temporary care of his great uncle who lives here in -- who lives in the United States in Miami.

As with any similar arrangement, Elian's temporary custody was conditioned on the understanding that the care providers will abide by the instructions of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

In December, INS officials on two separate occasions interviewed Mr. Gonzalez in Cuba.

Again, no Cuban officials were present. Both times, Mr. Gonzalez asserted his plea to have his child returned to him, and he said that he had no desire to live in the United States.

I wholeheartedly reject Cuba's system of government. Mr. Gonzalez and I do not share the same political beliefs, but it is not our place to punish a father for his political beliefs or where he wants to raise his child. Indeed if we were to start judging parents on the basis of their political beliefs, we would change the concept of family for the rest of time. After meeting with Mr. Gonzalez in Cuba, INS officials also met with relatives in Miami. We wanted to give the relatives an opportunity to provide any information they could that would be relevant in the decision.

In January, after the interviews, the INS commissioner announced her decision that not only did the father speak for the son, but that the father's wishes were indeed to have his son with him.

From that moment, nothing prevented the United States government from immediately taking action to reunite the father and son. There was no court order, no stay, no injunction that prevented us from doing so. But instead of moving hastily, we gave the relatives in Miami a chance to challenge our decision in federal court. A federal court sustained our judgment, stating, and I quote, "Each passing day is another day lost between Juan Gonzalez and his son."

Thereafter, we again remained willing to postpone the reunion because we wanted to give the relatives every chance to argue their case in the federal appellate court. All we asked for in return was a pledge that, at the end of the day, when the appeals process had run its course, the Miami relatives would turn over Elian to his father voluntarily.

They were unwilling to provide us with that assurance.

For the past several weeks, we have engaged in discussions with the relatives to try to come to a cooperative arrangement for reunited Elian with his father, but instead of discussing how Elian should be reunited, the attorneys for the relatives continued to demand that we revisit the issue of whether Elian should be reunited. That is not what the law provides.

It has been nearly 12 weeks since the commissioner's decision; four months since Elian was found at sea. It is time for this little boy, who has been through so much, to be with his father.

The relatives say it would be wrenching to him to take him from the home, but four months is no substitute for six years for a father who had such an important role in raising such a wonderful little boy.

The law is very clear: A child who has lost his mother belongs with his sole surviving parent, especially with one who has shared such a close and a continuous relationship with his son.

I understand and respect with all my heart the deep-seated beliefs which the Cuban exile community feels on this subject.

Cuba is a repressive society, a society governed by a dictator from whom thousands have fled. Over the past four decades, Cubans have come to the United States to seek freedom and to seek a better way of life. As a result, Miami has prospered and has grown and is a wonderful city, which I love very, very much.

I know most people in the Cuban community differ with my decision, because they have the best interest of Elian at heart. Many of them risked their lives to come to this country. They want him to have the opportunity that they have had. But in the end, I believe that they also understand that this is a nation of laws by which all must abide, and it is a nation whose law and whose very moral foundation recognize that there is a bond, a special wonderful sacred bond between a father and his son, one that I intend to uphold.

Yesterday, Mr. Gonzalez came to our country to be reunited with his son. Today, we move forward with that reunification.

Early next week, we will give the relatives instructions on when and where Elian is to be turned over to his father, and at that time the INS will formally transfer parole and care to the father.

By letter today, we are asking the relatives to meet on Monday with two eminent psychiatrists and a distinguished psychologist to determine how the transfer can take place with as little disruption for Elian as possible.

The three experts have informed us that the best way to proceed is to effect the reunification promptly. Monday's consultation will assist us, not in determining whether the transfer should occur, but how it will occur to cause the least disruption possible.

I have been in California, in Chicago, in Chile and in Costa Rica in these last four months. I have been in my own home town and I have been in Washington. This case has struck the heart and soul of the world. I urge everybody involved to move forward to effect this reconciliation and this reunification as soon as possible.

Elian deserves the very, very best, and the best we can give him, for he has been through so much. And in his own way, rather than tear us apart, he has brought us together to understand the strength of the human spirit. Let's not disappoint him.

QUESTION: Are you taking questions now?

RENO: Yes.

QUESTION: The great uncle and the distant cousins in Miami continue to insist that Elian has not had his day in court. Is it still your position that, because of the legal actions which have taken place, he has had his day in court?

RENO: He has had more than what the law would ordinarily give him as his day in court, because we gave the relatives the opportunity to go into federal court.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, is it still the case you're planning for Elian to stay in the United States in the parole and custody of his father while the appeals continue, or has that changed?

RENO: We would always be happy to talk to the family to see what they would agree to, but at this point, our judgment is to move forward to affect the transfer, and it would be a permanent transfer.

QUESTION: So does that mean he would go back to Cuba before the appeals were finished? That Elian would go back...

RENO: We're always willing to talk to people about what could be done.

QUESTION: What could you tell us about the psychiatrists and psychologists who will be evaluating the case, how they were chosen, and what exactly their role will be on Monday?

RENO: Dr. Jerry M. Weiner (ph), who is the professor emeritus in residence of psychiatry and pediatrics at the George Washington University Medical School, is one. Dr. Paulina F. Kernberg (ph), professor of psychiatry at the Wile Medical College (ph) of Cornell University, and director of the child and adolescents psychiatry residence training center at New York Presbyterian, is the next. And Dr. Lourdes Rigal Lynch (ph), the director of mental health services at the division of community pediatrics at Montefiori Medical Center (ph), are the three experts.

Doris Meissner and others spent a great deal of time consulting with experts that the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association identified -- I am correct? -- and determining who had an understanding of these situations, looked for people who could speak Spanish -- and two of them do -- understood Hispanic culture and I think we have come to a choice of three very, very fine experts.

QUESTION: Have they already given the department advice on the case or is that still to come?

RENO: They will continue to give us advice on the case, but they have said that in a situation like this, we should have affect the reunification as soon as possible upon the father's arrival in the country and that the best thing to do is to talk with the parties to explain to them and to talk with them about how they might be as constructive as possible in the process.


QUESTION: Ms. Reno, have those parties agreed -- have those parties agreed to this Monday meeting?

RENO: We're advising them that we're requesting them to participate on Monday.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, the role of the experts is to basically inform the representatives of the family as to when and what circumstances the child is to be turned over, or to...

RENO: No, it is -- and Doris, stop me if I'm misstating anything -- but the role is to talk with the parties, to hear from them, to get an assessment from them, and to make recommendations as to how it most -- can be done, with as little disruption as possible.

QUESTION: And then who will actually decide, or how will it be decided what the terms of the hand-off would be? RENO: The government is going to be the one that decides how it's done, and the issue is not whether it's going to be done, it's how it's going to be done in a manner that causes the least disruption as possible to Elian.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, will there be some discussions with the -- discuss those interviews between the psychiatrist and the boy himself -- and Elian himself or is that not part of this yet?

RENO: That would not be part of the initial view, because I think the experts' view is that the adults involved can do more than anybody else to help affect a smooth transition.

QUESTION: Will the psychiatrist be meeting with the Miami relatives and Juan Miguel Gonzalez or just with the Miami relatives?

RENO: We'll have to see what people decide to do.

QUESTION: Did your letter set a deadline, or what timetable do you anticipate for the actual transfer?

RENO: We expect upon the meeting -- after the meeting on Monday -- or if it does not take place, then we're advised -- then we will make notification to the family as to when and where it will take place.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) you say that Juan Miguel will be free to leave for Cuba soon as Elian is turned over -- with the child?

RENO: At this present moment there is nothing to stop him from returning to Cuba. There have been discussions. We would have to continue those discussions if the Miami family wanted to.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, can you tell us what the government is prepared to do if the relatives resist what you want them to do?

RENO: The relatives have indicated that they are -- intend to comply with the law and I respect them for that. So I don't think we have to get to that point.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, you mentioned at today's meeting that no Cuba officials were present. Did you ask or did anyone else at the meeting ask Juan Miguel Gonzalez if he was acting on his own free will and was under any pressure or coercion from the Cuban government?

RENO: I did not ask him, but he made very clear that he -- he said people here believe that he wanted to come to the United States to live. He said, My feelings are exactly the opposite.

QUESTION: Did he indicate any willingness to go to Florida at all or is that option totally foreclosed?

RENO: I think he, considering the tensions in South Florida, would be reluctant to do so, but we could always pursue those discussions. He wants very much to see the little boy and wants to do it in a way where it will not be hampered by the tensions. QUESTION: Monday's meeting will take place in Florida?

RENO: That's correct.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, you said twice now that the father could -- there's nothing to stop the father from returning to Miami, but you will have...


QUESTION: Returning to Cuba, but you would discussions with the family in Miami. What is the relationship between the discussions with the family in Miami...


RENO: I would not have discussions unless the family indicated a desire to agree to the orderly transfer of the child upon completion of the process, and I would then have to discuss it with Mr. Gonzalez.

QUESTION: So Mr. Gonzalez would not be able to receive his son until the expiration of the process?

RENO: No. Mr. Gonzalez -- if the family agreed that, upon the completion of the appellate process, they would be willing to -- if they agreed upon -- let's see, if they agreed now that -- if they turned over the child and did it in an orderly way and abided by the appellate process, if they agreed to that, then I would discuss with Juan Miguel Gonzalez whether he would stay in this country.

QUESTION: But there's nothing to prevent him from going?

RENO: If he receives the parole and care of the transfer -- the parole and care of the child from the INS, there would be nothing to stop him if we did not make that arrangement.

QUESTION: But you could impose that condition, if you wanted to?

RENO: I think he would have to agree to it.

QUESTION: And if there's no -- if the family doesn't voluntarily give up the child at this point, you're not contemplating imposing that condition?

RENO: I would not impose that condition because there is nothing to stop him. There is no stay of the proceeding at this point. But what I would hope that people can do in this situation is, without further delay, think of the little boy, and just think of what's best for him, not whether he should be transferred -- but we're going forward with the transfer; let's do it in a way that causes the least disruption in his life.

QUESTION: Senator Gramm (ph) has complained that the process does not put the boy's interests first. Are you saying that it does?

RENO: I'm saying that it does because, based on our law, based on the foundations of our society, parents speak for their children.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, from what the family has said so far, that they're willing to abide by (inaudible)

RENO: I think they care a great deal about this little boy. I think they care about this country, and I think if they make that statement when they had been asked to appear, they have so far appeared, to my knowledge, on every occasion. And I think one of the wonderful things they could do would be to set an example for everybody as to what happens when you get into difficult situations, which are very heartbreaking and sad, that you can still summon the strength to abide by the law and move forward. And I respect them and honor them for that.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, just to one thing absolutely clear, if Juan Miguel Gonzalez gets physical custody of his son -- has the parole of his son, there's nothing to stop him from leaving the country with his son before the appeals process is...

RENO: If he got parole and care of his son on next Tuesday, and there had been no agreement that -- if we had had to do this through -- without it being done voluntarily, and without it being done in a way that caused the least disruption, he would be free to go.

There is another alternative, and the other alternative is if we can agree quickly that the family would turn over the child to his father now, in a peaceful, orderly, timely manner, and if Juan Miguel Gonzalez agreed to stay in the country, pending the appeal, then it could be worked out on that basis.

BOBBIE BATTISTA, CNN ANCHOR: Attorney General Janet Reno at the Justice Department today announcing the orders to transfer the custody of Elian Gonzalez from his great-uncle in Miami to his natural father who came to Washington, D.C. yesterday.

CNN's Justice Department correspondent Pierre Salinger is there now with the very latest.

PIERRE THOMAS, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, as you heard from the attorney general, the first step, the first step toward reuniting Elian Gonzalez with his father, today notifying the family that next week they will receive instructions about when and where to transfer Elian to his father. That's the major development today, the attorney general notifying them through public television, if you will, that this will happen next week. We expect a letter to be going to the Miami relatives sometime this afternoon with the specific information that the attorney general just spoke to generally -- Bobbie.

BATTISTA: All right, Pierre Thomas -- and that is Thomas, not Salinger -- thanks very much for that report from the Justice Department.

And we have to take a break here and then we continue -- or can we continue now? We'll take a break.

Back in a second.



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